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A Complete Timeline of the Boeing 737 Max Disaster

The Alaska Airlines plane forced to make an emergency landing in January after a door plug blew out. - Credit: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images
The Alaska Airlines plane forced to make an emergency landing in January after a door plug blew out. - Credit: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images

Travelers typically unbothered at the prospect of flying now have reason to dread a trip by plane: since the beginning of the year, a string of alarming incidents that involve Boeing’s 737 Max models have shaken the public’s faith in the the company’s aircraft. Questions about the quality of parts and manufacturing processes even made it into the halls of Congress, where whistleblowers testified in April that Boeing has prioritized profits over safety. Days after, CEO Dave Calhoun said in a statement to employees that the company had taken “significant steps to strengthen quality and safety,” and that a “Boeing airplane safely takes off or lands just about every second of every day.”

But the woes of the 737 Max date back to its earliest days in service, and this isn’t the first time Boeing has had to answer for disasters caused by flaws in the plane’s design — some of them deadly. Here’s the complete timeline of how it gained a reputation as a hazardous vehicle.

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March 2017: Boeing’s 737 Max 8 gains FAA certification

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certifies Boeing’s 737 Max 8 for commercial service. It’s the first of the company’s “Max” class of airplanes, which make up the fourth generation of 737s, with a single-aisle layout and improved fuel efficiency. Ahead of deliveries, the company promises “lower per-seat costs and an extended range that will open up new destinations.”

February 2018: Boeing’s 737 Max 9 gains FAA certification

The FAA certifies the 737 Max 9, similar to the Max 8 but with three additional seat rows. It has a capacity of 220 passengers. Lion Air Group, comprising several Southeast Asia airlines, is the first to take delivery. At the time, Boeing touts the sales of 737 Max to date, reporting “more than 4,300 orders from 93 customers worldwide.” It’s the fastest-selling model in Boeing history.

October 2018: Lion Air flight JT 610, a Max 8, crashes into ocean after takeoff, killing 189

Only 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta, bound for another island in Indonesia, Lion Air flight JT 610 crashes into the Java Sea on Oct. 29, 2018, killing all 189 aboard. The plane, a 737 Max 8, was practically brand-new, having only flown about 800 hours. It’s the first accident involving a 737 Max and the deadliest 737 accident since the line was introduced in 1967.

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An investigation by Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee finds that the flight crew had tried to pull the aircraft out of a dive caused by a glitching sensor that caused its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to continually tilt it downward. In other planes, pilots are able to quickly and manually override such automated systems by taking hold of the central control column, but in this case, the crew would have had to follow a specific sequence of steps to retake control of the plane’s “angle of attack.” In the aftermath, Boeing issues updates on those emergency procedures. Some pilots criticize the company, saying it did not adequately communicate the change to the flight-stabilizing MCAS feature to begin with.

March 2019: Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, a Max 8, crashes after takeoff, killing 157

Just months after the Lion Air crash and amid continued scrutiny of the 737 Max, another Max 8 crashes into a field six minutes after taking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, en route to Nairobi, Kenya, on March 10, 2019. All 157 people aboard are killed.

Aviation regulators worldwide quickly move to ground the several hundred Max 8s in service, though the FAA initially maintains that the plane is airworthy. The agency waits until three days after the accident to ground the aircraft, at which point evidence had emerged of similarities to the Lion Air crash. Ethiopian investigators conclude that the flight crew had tried to follow the procedures to override the automated stabilization system as it forced the plane into a dive but were unsuccessful. Boeing admits that a software error led to the crash and says it is taking steps to “prevent erroneous data from causing MCAS activation.”

March – December 2019: Corporate upheaval and Congressional testimony

Boeing continues to produce the 737 Max even as they are kept out of service, aiming for a software fix to the MCAS that will satisfy regulators. However, setbacks abound, and more than once the company is forced to revise its timeline, all as its stock plummets.

Meanwhile, Boeing maintains that it was not aware of the safety issue prior to the crashes, though reporters come to learn that it concealed details of the MCAS from its own test pilots during development, and the company eventually releases internal messages that reveal how a top technical pilot working on the Max, Mark Forkner, had complained about the system’s erratic behavior back in 2016. Earlier that year, Forkner had secured permission from the FAA to remove any mention of the MCAS from the Max pilot manual, but neither he nor the company had revealed to the agency that they were overhauling the system. “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” Forkner wrote in one of the messages made public by Boeing, though he did specify how he misled them. Meanwhile, an international safety panel blames both Boeing and the FAA for failures in the certification process for the 737 Max.

Amid this turmoil, in October 2019, Boeing’s board removes CEO Dennis Muilenburg as chairman while allowing him to remain chief executive, a move that will supposedly allow him to focus on problems with the Max. Later that month, Muilenburg is brought to testify before a Congressional committee, where he’s grilled by Democrats and Republicans alike on Boeing’s “flying coffins” and “a pattern of deliberate concealment” regarding the MCAS anti-stall system. Muilenburg concedes that he would have made a “different decision” about Boeing’s course after the Lion Air accident had he known more about the issue.

Things only get worse in December, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that a 2018 FAA review following the Lion Air tragedy determined a high risk of future 737 Max accidents — but not grounding them at the time — and whistleblowers testifying to Congress that Boeing’s high-pressure, “unstable” production environment is likely to cause mistakes. One former employee, Ed Pierson, says he formally warned leadership about cutting corners on multiple occasions only to be ignored. Boeing decides to suspend production of the 737 Max in January, and Muilenburg is ousted as CEO, replaced by chairman David Calhoun.

January – November 2020: 737 Max remains grounded

Boeing continues to work toward ungrounding the 737 Max, resuming production of the model in May 2020. That September, after 18 months of investigation, the U.S. House Transportation Committee publishes a damning report that describes how the company could have prevented the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes — also noting that the FAA had ceded too much oversight to Boeing itself in the certification process. The report cites the company’s rushed production and cost-cutting measures as contributing to safety failures. The same month, deliveries of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners, large aircraft used for long-haul flights, begin to slow because of quality concerns at the FAA.

In November, the agency clears the Max 8 fleet, allowing the planes back into commercial service.

2021 – 2023: More ungroundings and major financial losses

By this point, the 737 Max is already considered one of the most expensive debacles in corporate history, costing Boeing more than $20 billion in customer compensation, victim compensation, jet storage, added production expenses, software updates, loan interest, and lawsuit settlements. In January 2021, it agrees to pay another $2.5 billion to defer prosecution for three years on a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States by circumventing proper federal oversight of its aircraft design, with $500 million going to the families of the 346 victims of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents. In September, it agrees to pay a $200 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading the public.

In October 2021, Boeing test pilot Mark Forkner becomes the first individual criminally charged in connection with the 737 Max, the Justice Department alleging that he had deceived the FAA in an effort “to defraud Boeing’s U.S.‑based airline customers to obtain tens of millions of dollars for Boeing. Forkner, who faces decades in prison if convicted, is acquitted by a Texas jury in March 2022.

Throughout this period, aviation regulators around the world, including those in Canada, Europe, Australia, and India follow the FAA in lifting bans on the 737 Max. China is among the last countries to unground the planes, not allowing them back into service until early 2024.

January 2024: Alaska Airlines flight 1282, a 737 Max 9, makes emergency landing after mid-flight door blowout

Six minutes after taking off from Portland, Oregon, en route to Ontario, California, Alaska Airlines flight 1282 suffers an uncontrolled decompression and is forced to return to the Portland airport for an emergency landing. All passengers and crew survive, with several minor injuries reported.

The aircraft, a 737 Max 9, had suddenly lost a door plug — used to fill an opening in the fuselage where an optional emergency exit door can be installed — when it separated from the airframe. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and several objects were sucked out of the hole in the cabin, though fortunately no one was seated next to it. The plane, two months old, had logged just 510 flight hours. Passengers file a class-action suit against Boeing, claiming emotional trauma, and do not name Alaska Airlines as a defendant. Aviation experts note that the accident could have been far more catastrophic under slightly different circumstances.

The FAA orders the grounding and immediate inspection of 737 Max 9s. Alaska and United Airlines both report discovering “loose hardware” on Max 9 door plugs and other installation problems. By the end of January, the FAA establishes a new inspection procedure for the part and clears every Max 9 for service upon completion of this safety check.

At the end of the month, Boeing shareholders file a lawsuit against the company, alleging that it misled them about its commitment to safety.

February 2024: Scrutiny intensifies as leadership gets a reshuffle

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board finds that four bolts meant to keep the Alaska Airlines door plug in place were missing when it blew out. The NTSB continues to investigate the accident.

As right-wing reactionaries choose to blame Boeing’s safety woes on corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, suspicion also spreads to Spirit AeroSystems, the parts supplier that made the fuselage and door plug on the Alaska Airlines 737 Max. The company is being sued by shareholders who allege mismanagement, and in federal court, those plaintiffs have filed documents from a quality-control inspector who claims they uncovered “an excessive amount of defects” at a Spirit facility in Kansas.

At the end of February, Boeing ousts Ed Clark, the executive who led the 737 Max program, while creating a new position, Vice President of Quality, for its commercial airplanes unit, and assigning senior VP Elizabeth Lund to the role. The shakeup comes shortly before the FAA gives Boeing a 90-day deadline to sort out its quality controls.

March 2024: Another close call, a whistleblower’s shocking death, and criminal investigations

In early March, the NTSB confirms it is looking into an incident that occurred a month prior when United Airlines flight 1539, a 737 Max 8, touched down in Newark, New Jersey. The agency’s preliminary report indicates that during the “landing rollout,” as the crew tried to slow down to taxiing speed, the rudder pedals used to keep the plane on the center of the runway were “stuck” and unresponsive. The pilot was forced to make a “high-speed turn-off” to exit the runway, after which the pedals operated normally again. No one was injured. United is able to duplicate the malfunction in a later test of the plane.

The FAA completes an audit of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems initiated after the Alaska Airlines accident, identifying “dozens of problems” with the manufacturing of 737 Max jets, per the New York Times. Both companies failed product audits related to the door panel part and quality-control compliance. The report also notes that Boeing did not “provide evidence of approval of minor design change” to the door plug “under a method acceptable to the FAA.”

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy says it’s “absurd” that Boeing hasn’t been more timely in responding to their numerous requests for information relevant to their own investigation of the Alaska Airlines blowout, including the names of employees who work on door plugs at a plant in Renton, Washington. Boeing does then identify those individuals, but Ziad Ojakli, an executive vice president and lobbyist for the company, tells Congress they cannot locate work records for the defective door panel on the Alaska Airlines 737. The company’s “working hypothesis” is that no such records were made, despite a rule mandating this.

John Barnett, a former quality manager at a Boeing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina who became a whistleblower alleging that the company was compromising on safety standards, is found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on March 9. He had been giving depositions for a defamation suit he’d brought against the manufacturer for alleged retaliation in response to him sounding the alarm internally about the use of sub-standard parts and noncompliance with factory procedures. Barnett’s mother, Vicky Stokes, says she holds the company partly responsible for his death, with the family sharing a statement that said “he was looking forward to having his day in court and hoped that it would force Boeing to change its culture.” A family friend claims that Barnett had previously told her, “if anything happens to me, it’s not suicide.” The Charleston Police Department launches an investigation.

The FBI and Justice Department open separate criminal investigations into the Alaska Airlines accident. Dave Calhoun, who took on CEO role at Boeing in January, announces that he’ll step down by end of year.

April 2024: Other whistleblowers testify as victims’ families push for criminal prosecution

Congress continues to hammer Boeing, this time with dual Senate hearings: one featuring a panel of aviation experts, the other including testimony from Boeing engineer Sam Salehpour and Ed Pierson, a former manager with the company. Both whistleblowers describe a dangerous lack of regard for safety at Boeing. Salehpour, who bluntly accuses the company of putting out “defective airplanes” (he believes that hundreds of 777s and 787 Dreamliners are presently at risk of structural failure and urges Boeing to ground 787s worldwide) alleges that he “literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align.” He also claims his superiors tried to silence him when he brought up his concerns. Pierson expresses his skepticism about Boeing not being able to find the documents related to the malfunctioning door panel on the Alaska Airlines plane, stating, “This is a criminal cover-up.”

The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a labor union that represents Boeing engineers and technical workers, brings a complaint against the company for allegedly retaliating against two employees who requested the reevaluation of “prior engineering work on the 777 and 787” to comply with a new FAA guideline in 2022. In SPEEA’s account, after six months of resistance, Boeing made the necessary analysis, but then gave the engineers “identical negative evaluations” in their next performance reviews.

Announcing its failure to turn a profit in an earnings call for the first quarter of 2024, United Airlines says it lost $200 million from the January grounding of the 737 Max 9. Alaska Airlines had already estimated its losses from that month at $150 million. Boeing reports a $355 million loss for the first three months of the year and says it will pay $443 million to its airline customers in compensation deals.

Families of the victims of the Indonesia and Ethiopia crashes in 2018 and 2019 pressure the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Boeing on the grounds that the company violated the terms of its 2021 deferred prosecution agreement. As part of that $2.5 billion deal, Boeing had agreed to strengthen and enhance its compliance program in order to meet the safety requirements of the FAA and aviation regulators around the world. The families and their legal counsel see the Alaska Airlines accident as evidence that Boeing did not make those changes, in part because the DOJ did not appoint an independent monitor to oversee them. The government has yet to indicate whether it will dismiss the 2021 fraud charge, prosecute it, or extend the three-year deferral period, but it has a deadline of July 7 to make a decision on the case.

At this point, incidents involving any type of Boeing aircraft are making headlines — even though whistleblower concerns tend to focus on the 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner. The afternoon of April 23, Lufthansa flight 456 from Frankfurt, Germany, a Boeing 747, attempts to land at Los Angeles International Airport but skids and bounces hard off the runway, as captured in an alarming video. It takes off again and successfully lands on a second attempt. There are no reported injuries, and the plane returns to Frankfurt after an inspection.

On the morning of April 26, Delta Airlines flight 520, a Boeing 767, safely returns to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for an emergency landing about an hour after takeoff. An exit slide had detached from the aircraft, causing what the crew describes as a “vibration.” A passenger tells NPR that a loud noise could also be heard inside the plane. The slide was found two days later — washed up by the beachfront house of a lawyer whose firm brought the shareholder suit against Boeing in January.

May 2024: Disastrous landings, a deluge of whistleblowers, and another whistleblower death

Another whistleblower, Josh Dean, who worked as a quality auditor at Boeing parts supplier Spirit AeroSystems and warned of flaws in the 737 Max, dies at age 45 after spending two weeks in an Oklahoma hospital. According to his mother, he had been infected with Influenza B and MRSA and eventually developed pneumonia. The Seattle Times reports that prior to falling ill, Dean was “in good health and was noted for having a healthy lifestyle.”

The FAA launches a new investigation after Boeing informs the agency that it may have skipped mandatory wing inspections on some 787 Dreamliners. The probe is to include investigations into whether the company falsified records. Boeing commits to reinspecting Dreamliners currently under construction, but in an email to employees in South Carolina, where the Dreamliner is manufactured, an executive maintains that there is no present flight safety risk.

Former Spirit AeroSystems quality manager Santiago Paredes, who performed inspections in a Kansas factory for about a decade, says he routinely found problems on fuselages made for Boeing’s 737 Max — but was instructed to downplay them. “It was very rare for us to look at a job and not find any defects,” he tells CBS News. Those issues included flaws in the area around the door panel that came off the Alaska Airlines flight in January.

A Boeing 767 cargo plane operated by FedEx makes an emergency “belly” landing in Instanbul on May 8 after its front landing gear fails to deploy, causing sparks and smoke as it skids to a halt on the runway. There are no injuries; Turkey’s transport ministry says its teams are investigating the accident.

The following day, a Corendon Airlines Boeing 737-800 (not a Max) has a tire burst during a landing at Turkey’s Gazipasa airport, in the south of the country. The aircraft, which had flown from Cologne, Germany, was able to stop safely, and 184 passengers and six crew were evacuated without reported injury. Turkey’s transport ministry confirmed damage to the front landing gear.

The same day as that disastrous landing, a passenger Boeing 737-300 (also not a Max) skids off the runway and catches fire in Dakar, Senegal, during an attempted take-off, marking the third dangerous incident in a week involving a Boeing aircraft. Of the 85 aboard the Transair flight to Bamako, Mali, 10 are injured, four seriously. Video shared on social media shows passengers abandoning the burning plane. Flights are suspended at the airport.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opens an investigation into whether Boeing misled investors about its safety practices.

Attorneys Brian Knowles and Rob Turkewitz, who together represented the two Boeing whistleblowers who suddenly died — John Barnett and Josh Dean — reveal that there are “more than ten” additional whistleblowers, including both former and current employees, are “safe and sound” and prepared to expose problems at the company.

On Friday, May 17, a police investigation by the Charleston Police Department concluded that Barnett died by suicide, providing documents that backed the initial report from the Charleston Coroner’s Department, which concluded it was an “apparent suicide.” Investigators closed the report on Friday following a ballistics report that said the bullet had been “fired by the firearm located in the victim’s hand” and the completed autopsy from the coroner’s office confirmed Barnett died by suicide. The investigation also revealed Barnett was found with a notebook, which contained “what amounts to a suicide note.”

 

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